Tuesday, September 14, 2010

RIP Portra 400NC & 400VC; hello Portra 400

RIP Portra 400NC & 400VC; hello Portra 400

Guest Post by Michael Sebastian

Via the British Journal of Photography, and elsewhere, comes the news today that Kodak has replaced both of its 400-speed Portra professional color negative films, effective immediately, with a single 400-speed successor. The new Portra 400 (no suffix) will be available in 135, 120/220, and 4×5, probably by November. So farewell to my venerable old friends Portra 400NC and 400VC, as existing supplies in the chain are consumed by year’s end.
What does this mean for Kodak, and for film shooters, going forward? As usual, there’s cause for both sorrow and celebration; but  overall, I think more the latter than the former. That is, assuming the new film lives up to its lineage and to Kodak’s recent reputation for hitting new-emulsion home runs—think Ektar 100. Preliminary reports from advance Portra 400 users are quite positive. One shooter in particular, wedding/portrait/commercial photographer Jonathan Canlas of Utah, has used the film and spoken glowingly of it. He’s posted some images he shot on Portra 400 during his recent Film Is Not Dead workshop. Click on the link to access that post, and the three that follow it, to see the images. Thanks, Jon, for posting the work—even though you had to keep the film’s existence under wraps until now.
From Kodak’s manufacturing and production standpoint, this move makes perfect sense. By incorporating its Vision motion-picture-emulsion technology in the making of Portra 400, as it did with Ektar 100, Kodak continues to cross-pollinate and consolidate its still and motion-picture emulsion lines. Given that movie-film sales are keeping the whole analog ship afloat at Kodak, still shooters should be happy to glom onto the cinema train for as long as it still chugs through the film gate. Any advantages of simplicity and scale Kodak can achieve through a still/motion manufacturing convergence redound to the benefit of both camps, but disproportionally to us still shooters. Once Hollywood turns its back on film completely, color film will be absolutely done, the digital stake through its heart quivering with each waning squeeze of the ventricle.
Perhaps the only surprise here—viewed through that highest-resolution optic, the retrospectoscope—is that it didn’t come sooner. It cannot for years have made business sense for Kodak to offer two ISO 400 pro color-neg emulsions to a worldwide market of target users who can’t abandon film quickly enough—emotional attachments notwithstanding. After all, Fuji users have gotten by with only one for quite some time. And the smell of firing-squad cordite in Tokyo has yet to dissipate since the massacre of every other pro color negative emulsion in their lineup. So having only one where there were once two seems inexorable. It will certainly simplify purchasing and storing film; no more wondering how much and in what ratio to buy 400NC vs. 400VC, or what to grab as I leave the house.
This consolidation is quite understandable, too, from an aesthetic point of view. As do I, the vast majority of color-negative shooters these days scan their film, work the digital files in some post-processing software, and print digitally—when they bother to make prints at all. If I’m free to tweak an image in Lightroom, Aperture, or Photoshop, do I really need both a Neutral and a Vivid version of the same film, differing only in characteristics like saturation and contrast that are easily tweaked in the software?  What I really “want”, even if I my head has yet to fully convince my heart, is a smooth, forgiving canvas upon which to paint an image. I want a fine-grained, sharp emulsion that “looks” like film, in all its rich tonal transitions and density of information. But I also want that film to capture the greatest possible color, tonal, and spatial information in the most neutral and forgiving manner, so that I can determine the rest in post-processing. With this move, analog film becomes more like a digital “raw” file, a vast bin of image information waiting to be shaped on my Wacom tablet. This approach seems like the best way for Kodak to acquire or keep film users. Most film shooters for the rest of film’s lifespan will be retro-loving digital converts, considerably my junior, who’ve discovered the beauty of film, but who are used to “doing it in Photoshop” rather than in the camera.
And precisely therein lies the source of my head/heart conflict. In a word, codger-hood. Having come of age shooting film, with decades of experience doing it, I’ve always worked to do things in camera, if not before. Choose an emulsion based on its individual color/contrast palette, your desired outcome, and the light conditions you expect for the shoot. Make your best possible image in camera. Send the film off to the lab you know and trust, whose particular “look” also suits your preferences. The analog prints you got back were the vector sum of all these choices, made before the first frame ever got dipped and dunked. You could see in the image the NC or VC patina looking back at you, validating all your effort and specialist knowledge, proudly acquired.
It’s not surprising, then, that I have set up my post-analog workflow to reflect my film-centric worldview. I scan to capture full tonal information, which produces a rather pedestrian “flat” scanner file. To this file I apply capture sharpening and standardized contrast correction on import into Lightroom or, more rarely, Aperture. I digitally dust-spot and tweak black and white points and tonal distribution, and make small further contrast adjustments. My goal is to do only what’s required to release the inchoate captured-in-camera NC or VC image from its cocoon. Ditto digital printing; I calibrate and profile, but that’s about it. When I look at my prints, I still see the film’s personality in the final image. But as fewer and fewer emulsions remain, I’ll have to learn to accept the necessity of doing more in post to duplicate the looks I used to get just by switching emulsions and minding the light—or else move to some entirely new way of approaching things. Until I have to give up film and make the Biggest Leap of All.
What about the images I linked to above? It’s hard to tell anything about a film by looking at someone’s web JPEG’s. Jonathan’s an expert film shooter and hybrid-workflow master, though, so his images viewed on my calibrated monitor give a few clues. They look to my eye a bit cooler than either Portra 400 emulsion, smooth and creamy, with the cyan-ish blue skies you see with Ektar. The contrast looks softer than VC but harder than NC.  Kodak’s comparison data places Portra 400 between its predecessors in saturation and sharpness, while it bests either one in graininess. Contrast is rated as comparable to the existing NC films. Would it be fair, then, to sound-bite the new film as Ektar 400NC? Or maybes TMax400 Color? This is all speculation until I’ve used the film. I’ll be doing that, and blogging about it here, as soon as I can get my hands on it.
So the sorrow is that yet another film line has died. The hands on the Film Doomsday Clock just tocked closer to 12 o’clock. But I understand the logic—even as I wish it weren’t so—and I can see a way to keep doing what I do with the new film, and maybe even improving things. Others will no doubt regard it with less equanimity; large-format shooters just saw their choices shrink significantly. With the demise of the old Portra 400 films, there are no more ISO 400 color-negative emulsions left in the world in sizes above 4×5; Kodak so far hasn’t announced the new film for larger sizes. For the 8×10 color shooter, that leaves Ektachrome E100G in E-6, plus Ektar 100 and both Portra 160′s in C-41. At least some of those should remain available to 5×7 shooters, if only by special order. Fuji hasn’t played in the large-format space for some time, so no help there.
More ominously, where does this leave the Portra 160 duo? With the Vision pair of Ektar 100 and Portra 400 on hand, does anyone really need 160VC? Granted, other than sharing the moniker “saturated”, Ektar and 160VC  aren’t much alike; but close enough may be good enough in today’s shrunken film market. Even the current Portra 400 versions give the 160′s some pretty stiff competition in the grain and sharpness departments; they’ve already supplanted the 160′s for the medium-format hand-held shooting that’s most of my work. If new Portra 400 is as much an improvement in grain and sharpness as was Ektar, then 160NC starts to look redundant too, just as TMax 400 serves as the only B&W film many photographers need.
It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine new Portra 400 as the sole surviving family member, doing the jobs of all four of its predecessors, with Ektar standing by when you want the sharpness and contrast of T-Max 100 in a color negative film. But, you say, that would leave larger-than-4×5 shooters with nothing but Ektar? My guess is that, if Kodak still cares about serving that handful of customers, it will make Portra 400 available in those sizes—just as it tested the waters with the smaller Ektar sizes before announcing it for 4×5 and up.
Portra 160, Portra 400, Portra 800, and Ektar 100, no suffixes: Kodak’s future pro C41 film lineup? Time will tell. Hard to see how you could justify any more than four color negative films in today’s market. I only hope it’s that many.


  1. As a dedicated 400vc user and a traditional c printer, this is no minor loss. I will be stocking up.

  2. I found the VC line to be way too candy-bright compared to the delicacy of NC. I had a hell of a time desaturating the VC in Photoshop too. I hope they don't give the NC line the PIZZAZ!! treatment.